WPS conflict inherited
The Aquino administration “mismanaged” the government’s approach to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) dispute that President Duterte has mended to restore good relationship with China, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday.
The Duterte administration merely inherited the WPS conflict from the previous administration, he added.
Lorenzana said when Mr. Duterte assumed office in June last year, tension between Beijing and Manila existed while trade with China was greatly reduced to almost zero.
He added Chinese tourists mostly avoided the country and Filipino fishermen cannot venture into Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal. Government troops deployed in the area were also harassed, he added.
“Now, we sell our bananas there, their tourists here have doubled, we can fish there and our troops are not harassed except in that isolated incident in Ayungin Shoal,” Lorenzana said.
“Is that mismanagement?, we have managed it very well through the President’s leadership,” said Lorenzana.
“For me, that is not mismanagement. The one that mismanaged was the previous administration dahil nagkagulo-gulo rito dahil mismanaged (everything was in disarray since it was mismanaged),” the defense chief added.
Tension erupted between the Philippines and China after a standoff at the Panatag Shoal in 2012 when Filipino troops attempted to apprehend a Chinese fishing vessel caught poaching off Zambales.
Former President Aquino, however, ordered the withdrawal of Philippine ships in the area two months after, to end the standoff but the Chinese vessels had remained until now.
The Aquino government subsequently filed a case against China before the United Nations (UN)-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the territorial dispute.
In 2016, the PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines but Mr. Duterte decided to set it aside for the moment while restoring relations with Beijing as part of his independent foreign policy.
Soldiers morale very high
Lorenzana also belied claims by Magdalo party list Rep. Gary Alejano that there is demoralization in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) due to the Duterte administration’s handling of the WPS issue.
“Go to the field, our troops are in very high morale…they are doing their best to protect our country. Now the West Philippine Sea issue is another issue but within AFP, our soldiers morale is high,” stressed Lorenzana.
Alejano claimed demoralization was caused by the supposed order by the President to stop
patroling the WPS.
Lorenzana and AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. belied Alejano’s information supposedly sourced from senior military official.
“He (Duterte) did not even hint that they (AFP) stop patrolling that’s why we are (conducting) regular (patrols) there,”
Plane landing not unusual
Lorenzana also doused any irregularities in the June 8 landing of a Chinese cargo plane in Davao City.
While he admitted that he learned of the landing after the fact, Lorenzana said the Chinese plane made prior coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) for the stopover.
They (Chinese) have coordinated (their intention) to land in Davao to refuel then (fly)
en route to Cairns, Australia…upon its return it will refuel again, that’s the arrangement.
So nothing unusual there, other countries do that also, landing to refuel,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana also stressed that there is no need for a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), similar to the agreement with the United States, for the aircraft of other countries to have stopping over in the country.
“MDT or no MDT, if they need to refuel they can also refuel…in fact, us we can refuel to other country when it is necessary but we will have prior coordination, that’s what they (Chinese) did,” he said.
No longer US-focused
Senate President Vicente Sotto III also defended Mr. Duterte’s policy of maintaining friendly ties with China despite recent reports about Chinese Coast Guard elements boarding boats of local fishermen.
“The President is the architect of our foreign policy. We are no longer US-focused. We are now gearing towards friendly ties with all nations,” he said.
The Senate leader said the Philippines’ association with the United States in the past made
the country among the targets of Japan during the Second World War.
“No country wants to go to war. That is why we are exhausting all possible means to avoid it from happening,” said Sotto. He also appealed to media and the public “not to swallow
everything that doomsayers say.”
Magdalo partylist Rep. Gary Alejano has repeatedly claimed that Malacanang issued a directive to the AFP to cease patrols in WPS, which Executive and defense officials denied.
Alejano, a former Marine officer, stood by his claim saying it came from his sources in the
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also called for more transparency on the report of the landing of a Chinese military plane at Davao International Airport.
The reported landing of Ilyushin II 76 operated by the People’s Liberation Army came amid
purported harassment of Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal by Chinese Coast Guards.
“First, there are strict internationally accepted standard protocols to be followed before
a state aircraft, and I assume more so in the case of a foreign military aircraft is allowed to use our country’s airspace,” he said in a text message to the Daily Tribune.
“For one, a request through proper diplomatic channels is made beforehand, and the same is forwarded to the defense department who will either approve or reject such request,” said Lacson.
If such protocols were followed by the Chinese military aircraft, the senator said there’s no reason why the concerned government officials should not make public the same.
“Being silent or vague on this issue will only raise more questions. What could be worse is if they did not observe such protocol, or were not even aware until such Chinese military aircraft had already landed. Then, we have acted like a province of China rather than an independent and sovereign state,” he said.
Palace officials and Philippine Air Force (PAF) Tactical Operations Group in Southern
Mindanao commander Lt. Col.
Richie Pabilonia claimed that the Chinese military plane only refuelled and its landing had a diplomatic clearance.
No harassment on fishermen
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, meanwhile, confirmed a report that Chinese Coast Guard personnel seized the catch of Filipino fishermen in the Ayungin shoal in May in violation of an agreement between the two nations allowing Filipinos to fish there.
Roque refused to describe the latest incident as harassment, adding the Chinese Coast Guard gave the Filipino fishermen noodles, cigarettes and water in exchange for their catch.
The fishermen, who appeared with Roque in the news briefing, said they were powerless to stop repeated seizures by the Chinese.
“The (Chinese Coast Guard personnel) board our boats, look at where we store the fish and take the best ones. We cannot do anything because their huge vessels are there,” said Romel Cejuela, one of the fishermen.
“We have addressed this issue to the Chinese and we are demanding that the Chinese take steps to stop the coast guard from doing these acts,” Roque told reporters.
“That is unacceptable. That is why we informed the Chinese we will not allow fish to be taken from our countrymen,” he added.
Duterte’s administration rejects criticism that its response to Chinese activities in the hotly contested waters has been weak.
Duterte’s aides have said previously the Philippines is taking “all diplomatic action” to protect its claims while insisting it would not anger China by engaging in “megaphone diplomacy”.
Manila, which has pursued trade deals and investment from China, instead holds regular talks with Beijing on the dispute.